To go or not to go? Death, friendship and knowing what is right – by Bert van Roermund

August 6, 2014

Author Articles

light and shadowed sky

When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine by suspected Russian separatists, Professor Bert van Roermund lost a colleague who was on board. On the same day, he received an invitation from another colleague to speak at a Russian University. In this personal and reflective piece, Bert van Roermund considers what happens when friendship and politics collide.

In the morning of Friday 18th July, I read the email: a close colleague of mine, Willem Witteveen (62) was on the Malaysia Airlines plane MH17 taken down the previous day in the East Ukraine. He died on a holiday trip, together with his wife Lidwien and their daughter Marit. Willem was a creative mind in jurisprudence, always looking for new ideas when others preferred to stay on the beaten track. He was an academic, an expert in law, rhetoric, and literature, a politician in the Dutch senate, and a painter in his own right. His input was often refreshing, even if, perhaps, he was sometimes too quick in going from one new idea to another. Willem was a man of vistas rather than management. I edited two book with him, and the September 2014 (special) issue of the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law features papers by both of us. All of that has stopped now through stupid action; action, it seems, by separatists in Ukraine who could count on support from Russia.

On the same morning two other emails dropped into my inbox, both coming from Russian universities that I have been visiting on a regular basis during the past fifteen years. One from State University A is a request to sit on a research assessment panel, sent by some vice-rector I do not know personally. The other one, however, comes from Xenia V.D. at one of the Federal Universities in B, whom I do know quite well.*  She invites me, also on behalf of her dean, to give a paper at a conference later this year on the basis of my EE book Legal Thought and Philosophy. And as usual when she writes to me, there is a message between the lines; it would be an opportunity to crack a critical nut about legal developments in the Russian Federation.

At the time of her writing, Xenia was unaware of the crash. She wrote from a computer in what the Russians call a ‘sanatorium’; a health resort from the old Soviet times, where hard workers with small purses were invited to spend two weeks to recover from demanding jobs during the year. They still exist, and from personal experience I know that they offer a strict programme of health bathing, rest periods, sports, and a diet that features infinite variations on the theme ‘mashed potatoes’. Anyway, high up in the Altai mountains the news had not yet broken. But in my mailbox the two messages clashed: the invitation to come and do my thing under the auspices of a Russian Federal University and the information that Willem and his family have fallen victim to armed violence that the Russian Federation has been stirring up for quite some time now.

What should I do? If the invitation had come from an unknown manager, like the State University’s vice rector, I would without any doubt decline it and state explicitly why. I would answer something like: You guys, call this man Putin to account first, before I am going to spend time assessing your research. I would have at least some title to say this. In the period 2000-2010 we (from Tilburg Law School) together with a number of German colleagues, made considerable contributions to projects, all geared towards improving law and legal education in Russia: guest lectures, summer schools, student mobility, library set-up, PhD supervision – we did all sorts of things, funded by European tax money. Around 2011 it stopped, as we took the view that, after ten years, our Russian partners had to come up with ideas. They did not.

law and philo

‘Legal Thought and Philosophy’ by Bert van Roermund, Edward Elgar Publishing.

This did not come as a complete surprise to us since, meanwhile, we had begun to become a bit cynical. I remember my first days in B, gathering at a bar in what was, at the time, a ‘Yugoslavian’ restaurant. We made a bet, enthusiastic as we were: we would reconvene in the same bar in ten years’ time and find that the legal situation in Russia had improved a lot. Only one of our Russian counterparts bet the opposite: it would be worse. This person was Xenia, the same Xenia who is re-inviting me now. All her life she has been critical of the Russian regime and its branches stretching into the Far East. It has cost her dearly; she was eliminated from some teaching programmes, buried under administrative odd jobs, forbidden to travel, threatened to be expelled from the house she rents from the university. Due to family circumstances she cannot go anywhere else, and people in high places know it. She realises that her critical attitude does not bring much, and yet she keeps trying. At some point I promised her and some of her colleagues who take a similar attitude, that I would be supportive. And now there is a new opportunity to come and speak openly about the rule of law in Russia.

Once again: what should I do? Prior to responding I should ask another question: What exactly is my predicament? At first sight it is a conflict of loyalties, in which the political becomes personal, and the personal political. Should I be loyal to Willem (and not go), or to Xenia (and go)? Both are victims of the Russian regime, the former all of a sudden, the latter already for decades. The one is dead, the other alive. Meanwhile Xenia let me know that she heard about the crash and that she feels embarrassed about the invitation. She met Willem when she visited Tilburg University, years ago. She understands that it is the wrong moment to take a decision. She will wait. This offers me the opportunity to reframe my predicament. Willem was a legal scholar, a senator, and a creative mind with a mission. He and Xenia shared the fascination with a potentially better legal order. For what it is worth, I will probably be loyal to Willem by being loyal to Xenia; more so than if I would turn her down to demonstrate my political correctness. I think I should go.


* The names of some of the people and institutions discussed in this article have been changed.


20140801_104720Bert van Roermund is Professor (em) of Philosophy, Tilburg Law School, The Netherlands.  He has published extensively on various fundamental legal concepts and contemporary legal problems (constitutional review, democracy, punishment, contract law). His monograph Law, Narrative and Reality (1997; also in Spanish) concluded a period of research on law and language. Since 1997, he has focused on problems of authority and representation (sovereignty, identity, normativity) in supra-national contexts (in particular the EU), as well as transitional justice and reconciliation. Currently, his main topic is the first-person perspective in law, with special emphasis on human rights and democratic law making. As a policy advisor, he has been involved in legal education reform in Russia (under Tempus), in the international peace movement, and in youth protection, and he has served on several ethics committees in The Netherlands. A new book Legal Thought and Philosophy appeared recently (2013) with Edward Elgar Publishing (UK).


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